Who knew a little girl from Sugar Land, Texas would one day become an Olympic gold medalist and make history in the swimming pool. At 20 years old, Simone Manuel swam at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for Team USA and made some major waves.
At the Olympics, Simone tied for gold in the 100-meter individual freestyle, anchored the 400-meter medley relay gold medal winning team, earned silver in the 50-meter individual freestyle, and swam for the silver 400-meter freestyle relay team.
“I had a great time in Rio at my first Olympics,” Simone said. “I don’t think I could have enjoyed my first experience anymore than I did. It was such an honor to be a part of team USA, and probably the greatest team at the Olympics.”
Simone’s 100-meter individual freestyle gold medal made her the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming. Her 100-meter, gold medal-winning swim also set an Olympic Record and American Record in the event.
“Watching everybody swim so fast inspired me to do the same,” Simone said. “I was lucky enough to be able to do that.”
It is safe to say Simone made not only Team USA proud, but her hometown proud too. Simone has been on a whirlwind since arriving back from Rio in late August. She participated in Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day among other events around the country.
Simone said out of all the things she has done after coming back from the Olympics, so far participating in Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day has been one of her favorites. Arthur Ashe Kid’s Day is an annual event that precedes the U.S. Open Tennis Championship in New York.
The event is a coming together of chart-topping performers, celebrities and athletes to celebrate the life and values of the tennis legend and humanitarian, Arthur Ashe. Simone enjoyed being a part of Arthur Ashe’s vision of helping kids be healthy, active and to get involved in a sport.
“Getting kids into swimming and to learn how to swim, and being able to take pictures with some of those children and them telling me that I am an inspiration to them means a lot,” Simone said, “because that is where it all starts and that is when you figure out your dreams.”
That’s when it all started for Simone too. Simone and her family knew at a young age swimming was going to be a big part of her life. It started with local swim competitions and grew to international competitions. Eventually, leading her to swim collegiately for Stanford University and for the USA Swimming National Team.
It hasn’t all been roses and medals though. Simone has had her fair share of trials and challenges along the way. Her family and her faith got her through it all though.
“My faith has extremely impacted my swimming career, especially this year,” Simone said. “I had a lot of ups and downs and wondering why it had to happen this year, but I never gave up and was able to achieve all of the goals I had set out for myself.”
These challenges had to do with her performance in Russia at the 2015 International Swimming Federation (FINA) World Championships, and not getting the best times in one of her events – the 100-meter freestyle – for the past two years.
“I just leaned on God the whole time, kept working hard and kept believing that something good was going to come out of it and it did,” Simone said.
A lot of good has come out of what Simone has done and even more good will continue to follow. As an Olympic gold medalist, she hopes to inspire kids to get into the sport of swimming and learn how to be water safe, all while helping USA Swimming reach its goal of diversifying the sport.
Simone wouldn’t be where she is today though without the support of her family. They are the ones who have encouraged and guided her throughout her swimming career, and also her faith.
Attending church together has always been important to the Manuel family. When she is at home, they attend every Sunday; except for when they are at Simone’s swim meets or her brothers’ basketball games when they were still playing competitively.
“We just really depend on God in every aspect of our life, whether it was me deciding what college I was going to or me praying before every one of my races,” Simone said. “We just depend on God in every little situation in our life and every big situation in our life.”
The Manuel family prays with one another and encourages one another in their faith. It’s what keeps them so close and strong no matter what they going through or doing – even the Olympics.
Fellow teammate, Katie Ledecky said the way Simone keeps her faith at the center of her life is inspiring. Katie shared that different quotes and bible passages inspire Simone and her faith is what keeps Simone focused.
“She has been given a great gift from God,” Katie said. “She wants to carry it out and do the best she can every time she is in the pool. It is really inspiring to see.”
Simone is an inspiration to many but she still thinks of herself as a girl from Sugar Land, Texas. Even while being named an honorary captain of the Houston Texans pre-season game against the Arizona Cardinals, she still couldn’t believe how many people stood to cheer for her.
“I get surprised,” Simone said. “I don’t know why I get surprised but I am just like ‘all of these people are cheering for me?’ All of it is a little bit of a surprise still to me.”
Simone has been praised all around the country, as she should be. Her family and hometown couldn’t be any prouder of her either. Despite all of the medals, Simone still would of have had something to be proud of.
“Whatever way I would of performed [at the Olympics], I still would have been proud of myself,” Simone said. “I worked hard all year. Sometimes the results don’t show, but you just have to keep trying and never give up. At the end of the day you are proud of yourself because you worked hard.”
Some athletes go through a post-Olympic let down, but Simone said that is not her. She feels fortunate to have had an incredible Olympic experience and be a part of the 2016 USA Swimming National Team. Perhaps, what keeps her going the most is knowing this isn’t the end, but just the beginning.
“I’m very excited to go back to Stanford and reach some goals with the team, reach some goals individually and just get back into college swimming,” Simone said.
After graduating from Fort Bend Austin High School in 2014, Simone was recruited to attend Stanford University and be a part of one of the top nationally ranked collegiate programs in the country.
As a freshman, she was a four-time national champion in the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard freestyle, 400-yard freestyle relay and 400-yard medley relay.
During the 2015-2016 collegiate swim season, Simone was redshirted as a sophomore so she could train for the Olympic Games. She can’t wait to get back in the pool for this year’s season. With Simone’s success, she could have chosen to take her career professionally but she still had some goals to reach.
“I just didn’t want to have regrets,” Simone said. “To me it’s not all about the money, the endorsements or all of those other factors that go a long with it. I wasn’t on the team this year and I want to go back to those relationships… I want to be a part of that team aspect again, and go back to school the whole year and enjoy my college experience…because those are the most important things to me, [they] keep me grounded and really keep me going.”
Simone has already made some major waves in the pool and outside of the pool, but she isn’t done. According to swimtoday.org, a USA Swimming website used to find a swim team, in the four days following Simone’s gold in the 100-meter freestyle there were 23,210 searches, which equaled two-thirds of the total searches for the 2014 calendar year.
The same day Simone won the gold in the pool in Rio she also won the day on social media. Compared to Michael Phelps, Simone gained over 56,000 more mentions than Michael following her 100-meter freestyle gold.
No matter how many gold medals Simone brings home one thing is for sure. She has made a name for herself and her hometown proud. Sugar Land, along with everyone else in the country can’t wait to see what else Simone is yet to do.